Seeking Data on the Drug War’s Child Casualties
July 24, 2002
With an estimated half-million American adults currently behind bars on drug charges, child welfare and prison reform activists have long warned that the War on Drugs is inflicting enormous collateral damage on tens of thousands of innocent bystanders: the children of prisoners. Now, for the first time, a new study attempts to determine just how many such children there are in at least one state.
Still, the statistics included in the study, compiled by New York-based Human Rights Watch, remain only estimates — and the report underscores just how little data exists concerning the deeper economic, social and psychological cost of parental incarceration.
“This is a very low priority group inside of a larger low priority group on a national agenda,” says Denise Johnson of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents. “These kids have not ever really counted for much.”
The Human Rights Watch study estimates that 23,537 children in New York alone have at least one parent serving a prison sentence for a drug conviction. Using data from a 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the study also estimates that nearly 125,000 children in the state have had at least one parent sent to prison for drug charges since 1980.
The data reinforce what child welfare and prison rights activists have long assumed, and while the report addresses New York alone, advocates argue the situation is likely to be similar in most other major states. Indeed, a 2000 study in California, commissioned by the state assembly, estimated that 856,000 minors — nine percent of the state’s children — had at least one parent “currently involved in California’s adult criminal justice system.”
While the New York and California reports provide some evidence to better frame the debate, they are both hampered by the fact that no agency actually tracks precisely how many children nationwide lose a parent to prison. The federal Department of Justice, for instance, has been collecting a broad spectrum of data on state inmates since the 1970s. It was not until the late 1990s, however, that it began looking into the numbers of prisoners with children — and the best data it has remain estimates.
The Human Rights Watch report acknowledges that much remains unclear about how the incarcerations of a parent changes a child’s life. For instance, there are no good statistics about how many children face a changed living arrangement as a result of the jailing of a parent. Moreover, while stating that child experts “agree that loss of parents to prison can be a continuing emotional trauma for children,” the report also acknowledges that the evidence for such psychological strain remains anecdotal.
In most states, the question of what happens to the children of prisoners is often an afterthought at best. In California, for instance, Mike Van Winkel, a spokesperson for the state Department of Justice, says there is no established policy on collecting data on dependents at the time of arrest. While police officers have been instructed to call child welfare officials when processing prisoners, doing so is usually left to the discretion of the officer involved, Van Winkel says.
“For the most part, this population is a silent voice in the political world,” says Gwynnae Byrd, a consultant on prisons hired by the California legislature. “We only think about the punishment side of things. We don’t think about the domino, the ripple effect that it has on all other people who are affected when somebody gets arrested and incarcerated.”
— George Sanchez